Rationalisation: Coping or Complacency?

Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones

Rationalisation was described by Freud biographer and psychoanalyst Ernest Jones as an unconscious maneuver to provide plausible explanations that manages unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings.

Gil Diesendruck

Children as young as ages four to six demonstrated this tactic s in experiments by Bar-Ilan University’s Avi Benozio and Gil Diesendruck.

The research team suggested that children learned at young ages to “reframe” disappointing circumstances.
This approach is typically employed by older people to reduce uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, described in classic studies by New School’s Leon Festinger.

Leon Festinger

In Benozio’s and Diesendruck’s experiments, children three, four, five and six years old completed tasks in exchange for stickers that varied in attractiveness to each age group.

Participants could invest considerable effort or minimal work in activities ranging from reporting current age to closing eyes and counting “as far as possible,” then counting five more.
The children were permitted to keep these prizes or give them to another person.

Six year olds who invested substantial effort to obtain attractive rewards were less likely to relinquish stickers to others.

Elliot Aronson

When six year olds applied significant effort to obtain less desirable rewards, they also distributed fewer to others, but their reasoning differed.

They adjusted their appraisal of the less attractive stickers, judging these prizes as more appealing.
In contrast, four year olds discarded stickers rather than bolstering the value of the stickers they had.


These differences suggest that children learn to rationalize by age six and this strategy persists among adults, found Stanford’s Elliot Aronson and the U.S. Army’s Judson Mills.
Their studies validated Aesop‘s observation of “sweet lemons” and “sour grapes” in the well-known fable The Fox and the Grapes.

To check errors in inferring preference and rationalization from this type of study, UCLA’s Johanna M. Jarcho and Matthew D. Lieberman with Elliot T. Berkman of University of Oregon conducted fMRIs while participants completed decisions to test attitude change linked to cognitive dissonance.

Joanna Jarcho

Joanna Jarcho

Brain activity showed a significantly increased rapid reappraisal pattern used in emotional regulation, suggesting that rationalization may be an automatic coping mechanism rather than an unconscious defense mechanism.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

Benozio and Diesendruck warned that this adaptive capacity could lead to complacent acceptance instead of working to change negative circumstances, articulated in the well-known Serenity Prayer attributed to Yale’s Reinhold Niebuhr:

…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

-*To what extent is rationalization a logical error?
-*How effective is rationalization as an emotional regulation strategy?

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©Kathryn Welds


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